Should You Choose Variable or Fixed Rate Mortgage ?

Understanding Fixed Versus Variable Interest Rates

First Published: March 18, 2010

When you are buying a home, one of the biggest choices you need to make, financially-speaking, is whether you want a fixed or variable rate mortgage. This is very important because depending on which you choose, you can either save money, or waste money, and it depends greatly on what the housing market is like at the time.

For example, in 2009, the housing market was suffering through one of its worst times in Canada. To help promote buying of homes, the Bank of Canada lowered the prime interest rate to its lowest level ever, .25 percent. For individuals with variable interest rate mortgages, their monthly mortgage payment went down. For individuals with fixed interest rate mortgages, they continued paying the same, higher price. Of course, it works the other way as well. When the interest rate is high because housing sales are doing well, then the individual with a variable interest rate is often paying more than the person with a fixed interest rate, who may have signed his mortgage when rates were still low.

Fixed Interest Rate

The fixed interest rate mortgage is the traditional type of mortgage, and it helps to mitigate certain risks like inflation. Inflation has not been a problem in Canada since the early-1990s, but there is always a risk that inflation can increase during tough economic times. Individuals with a fixed interest rate mortgage will be immune from inflation because their interest rate does not change. If the average interest rate goes up from five percent to eight percent, those with fixed interest rates keep paying five percent. In many ways, a fixed interest rate is perfect for people who do not like to gamble. It provides a safety net against difficult economic times, but can be a hindrance during good times as well.

Variable Interest Rates

Variable interest rates have the advantage of saving you money when the interest rates are low. The flip side is that this type of interest rate will cost you more when interest rates are high. When the Canadian dollar is doing well, there is a pressure on home prices that pushes them down, which then reduces the need of the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates. During these times, a variable interest rate is the best option. It needs to be noted that to have a variable interest rate, a homeowner needs to have a high enough level of income to ensure they can afford the interest rate going up. A few percentage points can be a big difference. Here is an example of why:

Mortgage:     $500,000

Term:      20 Years

Mortgage payment (5% Interest):  $3,285 approx

Mortgage payment (10% interest): $4,750 approx

Mortgage payment (15% interest): $6,400 approx

As we can see here, the mortgage payment is $3,285 when the interest rate is at five percent, but if it goes up by 10 and 15 percent, it increases the mortgage payments by roughly $1465 and $1650 each month. This may not seem like much, but if a person is already pushing the boundaries with a $3,285  payment, an increase of over thousand dollars can easily cause a foreclosure down the road.

Which to Choose?

The type of interest rate you choose depends on the type of person you are. If you think you will benefit from a variable interest rate and you can handle a changing mortgage payment, then you may choose the variable interest rate. However, if you are more conservative and you just want a steady mortgage payment, then a fixed mortgage rate may be the one for you.